Since the industrial revolution of the 19th century, corporations have evolved and steadily gained power and influence. Corporate influence on government and media today has been enhanced and refined to the point where corporations have the power to control their appearance in the media as well as to secretly but powerfully influence elections and legislation. The corporate media have painted a carefully contrived picture that directs attention away from fundamental problems and towards superficial problems that condition events in their favor, as one would expect. As a result many people today have a view that serves corporate power: seeing “big government” as the problem and corporations as a source of jobs. This has been used to support the position that corporations should be given all the freedom they need to build their businesses and, hopefully, increase employment. This is especially visible today as population growth exceeds job growth and the middle and lower classes are seeing their political power, financial strength, and standard of living reduced. If those ideas were correct, however, we individuals might not be in the economic positions we’re in, but the corporate media are extremely powerful and have the wherewithal to control what the population knows, so the prospect for positive change is not good. So where might we be in two or three decades? Will the power of corporations continue to increase until governments become little more than proxies for multinational corporations? Will the lot of the average person continue to decline?
Soon corporations could effectively rule the world. In 1990 a corporate strategy professor at one of the top business schools in America told us (I was one of his students) that there were then 100 corporations in existence that each had more financial resources than all but the top 7 countries in the world. Now, over 20 years later, there is no reason to think the situation has gotten any better, and there are signs it has become much worse as many multinational corporations have turned in record profits even as the world has gone through major economic collapses. This would not be possible if they weren’t able to quietly steer government actions and manipulate political parties and whole economies. In particular, the United States’ approach of giving corporations full status as individuals (except for a vote, which would be insignificant anyway) has set a precedent that bolsters corporate power in other countries that have become used to copying the US economy. That means that corporations not only have global power, but their influence in the United States is multiplied in countries that are easily made dependent on corporations for tax revenues, jobs, and even military assistance. Nigeria, for example, has long been under the influence of its dominant oil exporter, Shell, which has been able to block reforms and regulations while stripping the country’s oil resources and reducing the majority of its people to poverty and powerlessness, even as it destroys the environment that has fed and provided for them since the beginning of recorded history. When people are made so helpless and their standard of living is degraded, insurgency and rebellion are inevitable, but that just makes it easier for the government to apply police and military to further subjugate the population. While Nigeria is an extreme example it is far from alone, and such situations are bound to increase.
If the current trends continue, where might we be in 2041? As corporations continue to gain power and influence the governments of most countries will increasingly become corporate puppets. Where the population openly revolts against the poverty and corporate abuses, situations such as exist in Columbia and Afghanistan may arise, where the government has control of only the less mountainous and more fertile parts of the country while the rougher parts of the country are held by rebel groups waging an endless battle for control of territory and resources.
Corporations will become more important and powerful than nations. As the power of nations is reduced relative to that of corporations, people may become increasingly loyal to their employers and less mindful of national associations.
Countries that resist corporate domination will be shunned and persecuted. Corporations may wind up in economic and sometimes military confrontations with groups trying to maintain the power of ethnic, national, and religious groups. The response will be, as we have seen, to first manipulate the media to ignore or derogate these groups so that popular support will be minimized. The media will also cast these groups as small groups of militants, labeling them “terrorist groups” whenever possible to cement the legal and cultural stigma against them. The police and military will be used to try to incite violence on the part of even the most nonviolent groups, as any violence will justify the “terrorist” label. Where whole nations try to resist corporate domination they will be ostracized in the international community and economic sanctions will be used to keep them as weak as possible. National secret services like the CIA and KGB will be used to destabilize these rogue countries until a corporate-favorable government can be installed. In some cases the media and politics will be used in a “full court press” to create a case for other countries to make war against them. If they have already nationalized corporations this case will be made very strongly, and national leaders may even lie about the rogue country having “weapons of mass destruction” in order justify invading them. In the end they will be pulled back into the world community of corporate-dominated countries at great cost and loss of life, though the pace at which these events take place will be dependent on the resources and market potential the rogue country holds. As a result, for economically less important countries this could take decades, while for a major oil supplier, for example, this could take place in just a few years.
Corporations may wage war on each other, using nations as proxies. As nations weaken and corporations gain strength, big companies may only have each other to compete with, and war may break out between them. Nations may no longer be able to support military forces except where it might be desirable for corporations to use national armies as their proxies in the fight for dominance. If corporations can already manipulate US politics as they do today, imagine not only what they can do in small countries, but what they might be capable of after several more decades of concentrated effort.
Corporate concentration into fewer, more powerful organizations is likely. When big corporations can, they naturally increase their power by buying up smaller competitors or driving them out of business. They can fund whole departments of experts whose sole responsibility is to increase control of the media and cement mechanisms for subtle political control. They build alliances with companies in other industries that are advantageous to them, and sometimes build conglomerates that work to control many different markets simultaneously. This suggests a scenario in which the largest nations are controlled by conglomerates while the small countries are still frequently dominated by single multinational corporations, focused on a particular resource in which that country is rich.
Corporations could contribute substantially to widespread disaster. In the end, corporations’ short term focus on increasing profits will drive humanity into an untenable position – a population too big to feed, limited educational opportunities for most people, decreased innovation especially in the area of basic research, and a generally helpless world population at extreme risk for famine and epidemic. With the lack of corporate long term planning, infrastructure will grow to be unsustainable, allowing massive failures that will drive large numbers of people to migrate, most losing their life savings in the process, and resulting in an explosion of poverty in the world. Epidemics will become much harder to control, and sudden decreases in the population of large geographic areas will occur due to fast moving, drug-resistant infections. Monocultures currently being spread by seed and chemical corporations will increase risk of agricultural failures until they become common, and famine will occur in spite of the global transportation network to move large quantities of food quickly. With the predicted population of 9 billion by 2045, fully 30% larger than today’s, the problems will create demands for food and energy that will exceed the supply capacity of container ships and air lifts, and while corporations will be affected, they will be little more able to mitigate the disasters than the national governments they’ve weakened to enable corporate dominance.
Eventually corporations will decline, too. In the end, while it isn’t clear how, corporations will themselves disintegrate due to large scale infrastructure failures and lack of people to maintain their operations. As the world population declines to a sustainable level populations will fall precipitously and sporadically, possibly over a period of 50-100 years. As I wrote in a previous article “The Simple Math: Ignoring the Population Explosion Will Not Make It Go Away“, if the population is reduced by 5 billion people over 50 years that will mean an average reduction in population of 274,000 per day not including countering the birth rate. This is far more than has been seen from any disaster we’re familiar with today. It is likely that neither corporate nor national powers will be able to do much to mitigate the huge famines and epidemics that will achieve such reductions.
Regulation of corporations on a global scale is needed at once. If we are to reduce the damage the scenario painted above to humanity and the planet as a whole, we need a global understanding that, while capitalism motivates great achievements and improvements for humanity, the corporate entity established under the banner of capitalism will naturally sub-optimize (detract from) the common good unless it is regulated by government. Governments themselves have incentive to address this problem, but are presently too mired in political squabbling and too dominated by corporate influence to do anything positive.
It is encouraging to see the Occupy Wall Street movement growing. Without an uprising of individuals to force governments to regulate the power of corporations now and in the future the scenario I described above could become reality (more than it already is). I urge all responsible, thinking people to let your elected representatives know how you feel about these issues, and support the “99%” of us by contributing to the Occupy Wall Street movement in any way you can. We need a sea change in the way government operates and the ways in which corporations are regulated, and as we’ve learned the hard way, only we can make that happen.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading — Tim